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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Hope & hunger: Why seven medals in Tokyo add up to a lot more

Neeraj Chopra's javelin gold made sure India will leave Tokyo with a record medal haul – the one gold, two silver and four bronze – overtaking the previous-best tally of six at the London Games.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: August 8, 2021 11:43:32 pm
For India, Tokyo 2020's biggest takeaway came on Saturday – the gold in a mainstream mass-sport. (AP)

THE Olympics opening parade of nations comes with a crisp synopsis about the sporting identity of each country. For years now, India has said hello to the world with the MC parroting that familiar line: “A country that has won eight hockey golds”. That the last one was in 1980 is an embarrassing rider left unsaid. Subsequently, India has got Olympics medals in shooting, wrestling, badminton but it hasn’t excelled in any of the Olympics mother sports: athletics, swimming, gymnastics.

That changed Saturday.

Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold made sure India will leave Tokyo with a record medal haul – the one gold, two silver and four bronze overtaking the previous-best tally of six at the London Olympics. But then seven is just one more than six.

What’s history-making is that never ever, since the Dhyan Chand era, has India dominated an Olympics discipline the way 23-year-old Neeraj Chopra did on Saturday. For India, Tokyo 2020’s biggest takeaway came on Saturday – the gold in a mainstream mass-sport.

Each one of the Tokyo Seven, and some who came within touching distance of a medal, has a unique story but a common thread runs through all. The Class of 2021 is far too different from past athletes for whom just being at the Olympics was the destination – this bunch is even picky about the colour of the medal.

No one encapsulated this better than silver-medal winning wrestler Ravi Dahiya, who was so distraught at not winning the gold that at one point, he offered, half-jokingly, his medal to a reporter who merely requested to see it. “I have to live with the fact that I have silver,” he said.

It wasn’t just him.

Boxer Lovlina Borgohain shed a tear for winning “only” a bronze. PV Sindhu, the only woman to win two Olympic medals, said as much: she didn’t know whether she should be sad at missing out on another Olympic final or be happy that she had one more shot at a medal.

Another enduring image, perhaps, would be that of goalkeeper Savita Punia who sobbed on the pitch after losing the bronze medal playoff to Britain. It didn’t matter to her that the hockey team had already overachieved by reaching that far despite being one of the most underprepared.

Tokyo 2020 | Making of a medal

Indeed, heading into Tokyo, her hockey team hadn’t played a competitive match since November 2019 and half-a-dozen players had got infected with Covid-19 during the second wave. And they weren’t alone. The second wave had wrecked the preparations of almost the entire Indian contingent.

But the government, federations and private not-for-profit companies made sure the elite medal prospects did not suffer a lot. Sample this:

* Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu was sent to the USA almost overnight just as the second wave was starting to wreak havoc. She stayed there until the Olympics.

* Wrestler Bajrang Punia, too, stayed in Russia to prepare for the Games.

* The entire shooting team was airlifted to Croatia to ensure their preparations weren’t affected.

Some, who were infected with Covid, battled it out in their own ways. Aditi Ashok, the golfer who fell agonisingly short of a podium finish, noticed her strength getting considerably sapped post-Covid, which affected the range of her shots, especially from the tee. Still, through sheer grit, she challenged the world’s best golfers.

Even Chopra was a desperate man just four months ago. An injury had robbed India’s newest Olympic gold medalist of competition for the whole of 2019. When he recovered last year, the pandemic struck and another year had gone waste, a situation that persisted until the middle of this year following the second wave.

So, he made an appeal. “Mujhe competitions ki bahut zyada zaroorat hai (I desperately need competitions),” he had said. Once again the demand was met – before moving to Tokyo, he got to train and compete in France, Sweden and Finland.

On Saturday, Chopra looked in perfect shape. He won the gold when javelin throw is considered to be at its peak given the competition. His field included one of the best throwers of all time, Germany’s Johannes Vetter, but Chopra remained unfazed.

It was the same with the hockey team that ended the 41-year wait for an Olympic medal in some style to beat the mighty Germans and win the bronze. Sentimental factors aside, this medal means a lot more to the players as it comes when any of the top eight teams is capable of beating another.

The same was the case with Sindhu, who acknowledged that the Tokyo bronze was tougher than the silver in Rio for two reasons: the expectations placed upon her, and to fight against what is largely considered the golden generation of women’s singles badminton.

Sindhu was virtually in a self-imposed exile since the Covid second wave hit – a plight shared by most Indian athletes. This makes the record medal haul even more significant. Chopra did what he did without a proper competition for two years. Imagine how good he could be when Paris comes along in three years. And imagine how hard Dahiya and Lovlina will be training to change the colour of their medals. Tokyo made it slightly easier for a nation to imagine.

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